Back-to-School Psalms

An image of a kid with a Bible on his lap, laughing. This image is in honor of the rather bad pun at the end of our second psalm.
This image is in honor of the pun that ends the second psalm.

For our Sunday school kick-off, I lead the kids, age 3 – 2nd grade, in writing their own back-to-school psalms. I told them that God’s story didn’t end with the last book of the Bible–we are part of God’s story today. So we can write psalms about what we’re experiencing, what we’re feeling, and what we know about God–just like David and the other psalmists did.

My pattern for writing psalms with kids is:

This is what’s happening in my life…
This is how I feel about it…
This is what I want help with… (oops, forgot this one with the first group)
This is what I know about God…
This is what I’m going to do…

So here are the two psalms we wrote on September 10, 2017:


Back to School Psalm 1

God, this week we saw the Nina and the Pinta with our friends.
It is our sister’s birthday, and she thinks she’ll be 4 forever.
We did homeschool.

We are feeling happy and glad,
angry and sad,
and relieved.

God, we know that Jesus died on the cross for our sins.
We know that he’s our savior.
We know that he loves us.
In fact, if we say we love others and we don’t,
then we don’t love you,
because you are love.

Because of who you are and what you’ve done,
I’m going to be kind,
I’m going to share,
I’m going to be happy,
I’m going to put others before myself.


Back to School Psalm 2

God, this week some kids went to school for the very first time,
and some kids had their second week of school.
To be more precise, some kids had their 8th day of 1st grade.
We played with dinosaurs,
and we got tattoos.

Some of us are excited to have some days off school,
and others are sad to have days off school.
Some of us are happy about school,
and others are nervous and sad.

We need your help with singing when it’s superfast.
We need your help with school,
and especially with sharing.

We know that you made all natural things, and you provided materials and made people who can make things who made things like this table.
We know that you are here, here, here, here, and everywhere!
We know that you love us.
You love us so much that you know all our prayers–
there are no prayers where you say, “Nah, I don’t want to look at them.”

Because of that, I’m going to give hugs,
I’m going to say “I love you” to people.
I will always say, “DONUT forget that God loves me!”


So when I’m in the weeds of recruiting volunteers and making schedules and hardcore crafting and organizing (as I am right now), it’s important for me to read these psalms, and the previous psalm we wrote together, to connect to the pleasures of doing faith formation with kids. And seriously, DONUT forget that God loves you!

Anne With an E and Me

a still image from the opening credits to Anne With an E

It’s the dream of many a historical fiction writer to send their readers back to the source material, and that’s what the series known in the States as Anne with an E (out on 5/12 on Netflix) did for me: it sent me right to the original Anne of Green Gables* to dig out the hints and suggestions that the TV writers ran with.

You see, my friend Lorilee Craker, author of the moving and marvellous Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter, and Me, has friends nearby with access to Canadian television and sent me into raptures (to put it in an Anne-like way) when she invited me to watch the new Anne series with her as they aired on the CBC. So I’ve seen them all. And I have some reactions.

My first reaction was pure love.

a still image of Anne waiting for Matthew at the train stationThis CBC version was created by Moira Walley-Beckett, who was a writer and producer on Breaking Bad, so it isn’t surprising that her Anne is darker than the one we were used to seeing in the 1985 miniseries, and who we may have seen in high school musicals. This Anne has flashbacks about life as an overworked child taking care of children in poor households with drunken husbands creating havoc. This version of Anne is definitely informed by our contemporary understanding of what it means for a child to live for 11 years being unwanted, unloved, treated like a servant, and probably physically abused–but it is at the same time the true Anne.

Great historical fiction sucks us into the story so intensely that we forget we already know how the story ends, and that’s what Anne With an E does. I forgot that things work out for Anne and she soon will get all the love she’d ever missed from Matthew and that Marilla would soften and grow because of her and she’d have wonderful friends and a town that embraced her. I couldn’t take my eyes off the skinny intense little girl with the big eyes that showed the entire stormy spectrum of her emotions.

When I went back to L.M. Montgomery’s work, I saw that all the pain and isolation the new series highlights was in the source. In the book, it’s easy to skim over the reality of Anne’s life before Green Gables because the painful information comes in an avalanche of Anne’s words about a dozen different things in one speech. But the new series pauses and lets us see the effects of her life on her, and it’s so good and right. Our Anne is a survivor of a traumatic childhood. She gets flashbacks. She disassociates from her reality through her agile imagination. She doesn’t understand the expectations of regular society because she’s never been part of it.

Here are some quotes from the book that could not be plainer about the darkness Anne lived with, and I’m going to present them without the chatter about the Lake of Shining Waters and kindred spirits so we are not distracted by her charm.

Oh, it seems so wonderful that I’m going to live with you and belong to you. I’ve never belonged to anybody–not really. (p.12)

“You don’t want me!” she cried…”I might have expected it. Nobody ever did want me.” (p.24)

And upstairs in the east gable, a lonely, heart-hungry, friendless child cried herself to sleep. (p.29)

[On being orphaned at 3 months] “You see, nobody wanted me even then. It seems to be my fate.” (p.39)

[On the 2nd place she lived, at age 8, taking care of 8 children] “It was a very lonesome place. I’m sure I could never have lived there if I hadn’t had an imagination.” (p.40)

[When Marilla asks whether the women were good to her] “O-o-o-h,” faltered Anne. Her sensitive little face flushed scarlet and embarrassment set on her brown. “Oh, they meant to be–I know they meant to be just as good and kind as possible. And when people mean to be good to you, you don’t mind very much when they’re not quite–always. They had a good deal to worry them, you know. It’s very trying to have a drunken husband, you see; and it must be very trying to have twins three times in succession, don’t you think?” (p.41)

Pity was suddenly stirring in her heart for the child. What a starved, unloved life she had had–a life of drudgery and poverty and neglect; for Marilla was shrewd enough to read between the lines of Anne’s history and divine the truth. (p.41)

It feels like that’s what Walley-Beckett, and AmyBeth McNulty, who inhabits Anne, have done: read between the lines of Anne’s history and divined the truth.

Like in real life, the truth often makes us uncomfortable.

On the trip from the train station to Green Gables, Anne tells Matthew, “Do you know, my arm must be black and blue from the elbow up, for I’ve pinched myself so many times today. Every little while a horrible sickening feeling would come over me and I’d be so afraid it was all a dream, then I’d pinch myself to see it if was real” (p.21). She presents as a charming anecdote, but the CBC series shows us the pinching and the giant deep bruise it causes–and it looks like what we now call self-harm.

In one episode, Anne has intense conversations with herself in her reflection that felt odd and disquieting to me as I watched, but then I went back to the book and there it is, from the first place she lived:

I used to pretend that my reflection in it was another little girl who lived in it. I called her Katie Maurice, and we were very intimate. I used to talk to her by the hour, especially on Sundays, and tell her everything. Katie was the comfort and consolation of my life. (p.58)

The comfort and consolation of her life was a wavy reflection in a bookcase with only one pane of glass because the other had been smashed by a drunken husband; this felt more like a dissociation response than a developmentally appropriate imaginary friend.

There is a scene in the CBC series that doesn’t appear in the book, and it got a lot of press and outrage in Canada, and it probably will here, too. Anne is at school, and is gossiping with the girls about the romantic feelings their teacher has for one of the students (this was also openly discussed by the girls in the book). She winds up spinning this tale about a mouse in the male teacher’s pocket that she knows all about from the place she lived in where they had 8 kids. The girls eventually figure out that mouse refers to his penis and to sex and they go from being impressed to horrified. As does Avonlea.

While this doesn’t appear in the book, it is entirely consistent with it. Anne is constantly saying things she doesn’t know are considered wicked. She tell us this from the beginning:

[About the asylum] “It’s worse than anything you could imagine. Mrs. Spencer said it was wicked of me to talk like that, but I didn’t mean to be wicked. It’s so easy to be wicked without knowing it.” (p.12)

And Marilla admits more than once that she has to make allowances for Anne because she’d never been properly taught. So it is entirely plausible that Anne would talk openly about things that were normal for her life experience, but were not the sort of thing nice girls talked about. This scene also gives us a satisfying mama-bear moment and speech from Marilla, so that takes some of the off-book sting out of it.

Because the off-book portions sting. They are substantial, with three or four episodes being mostly pure invention.

Yes, I know it’s funny to be complaining about the creators inventing things about a character who is a pure invention, but Anne is such an icon, such a well-known and loved fixture, that this treatment feels like historical fiction, or even speculative fiction. It feels like the show is playing with reality and experimenting with facts, even though both the original reality and facts are, themselves, fictional.

Many of those off-book portions had character revealing moments that were gorgeous, and worth my vague discomfort. Others puzzled me, although I could see what the show was going for. But there were also moments when the series got the characters wrong, and had them do things that were so out of line for who I know they are that I got upset. I might even have gotten a little rage-y. Even so, I couldn’t stop watching and feeling all the feels, much like Anne does.

All the actors are stellar, with the new family of McNulty’s Anne, R.H. Thomson’s Matthew, and Geraldine James’s Marilla being absolute stand-outs. Each of these actors is able to deeply move me with just their faces, without dialogue. The new Gilbert, Lucas Jade Zumann, is adorable and honorable (although not as playful as the book version) and I would have found him dreamy back when I was a girl.

Anne puts her head on Marilla's shoulderI haven’t re-read Anne since I became a mother, and I was astonished to see how much the book is the story of Marilla adjusting to parenthood and coming to love Anne, and to laugh–and that’s something Anne With an E highlights really well. The new series is very much the story of this emerging family, and how keeping Anne changes Matthew and Marilla. We also get to see snippets of how they may have wound up unmarried siblings: they have pasts in this series, pasts that affect their present. Just like Anne.

My love of the series is not as pure as it was after the first show, but it’s still there. The show a polarizing experience, but, I believe, worth it. Please watch it so I have more people to talk about it with. Because there must be talking!

** Quotes are taken from the 1998 Bantam edition.

Open windows and scope for imagination

a picture of me, on my stomach on my bed, right next to an open window, reading

Anne Shirley and Emily Byrd Starr (two L.M. Montgomery heroines who dominated my childhood reading) never met a bedroom window they didn’t want to open.

Anne’s first morning in Green Gables:

With a bound she was out of bed and across the floor. She pushed up the sash–it went up stiffly and creakily, as if it hadn’t been opened for a long time, which was the case; and it stuck so tight that nothing was needed to hold it up.
Anne dropped on her knees and gazed out into the June morning, her eyes glistening with delight. (Anne of Green Gables, p.30)

And after the last conversation she’ll have with Matthew, right after he tells her, “Well, now, I’d rather have you than a dozen boys”:

He smiled his shy smile at her as he went into the yard. Anne took the memory of it with her when she went to her room that night and sat for a long while at her open window, thinking of the past and dreaming of the future. (p.293)

Emily (of Emily of New Moon, Emily Climbs, and Emily’s Quest) is a young orphan whose future is decided when relatives she hadn’t heard of until just before her father died make her draw lots for who will be forced to take her. She and her father had always slept with an open window–even during Prince Edward Island winters. But at New Moon she must share a bed with her austere Aunt Elizabeth, who believes that night air is poison.

When she’s finally given her mother’s old room, high in the house:

Emily, very glad that there was an Emily, opened her lookout window as high as it would go, got into bed and drifted off to sleep, feeling a happiness that was so deep as to be almost pain as she listened to the sonorous sweep of the night wind among the great trees in Lofty John’s bush. (Emily of New Moon, p.286)

Even when she’s an old lady of 24:

This afternoon I sat at my window and alternately wrote at my new serial and watched a couple of dear, amusing, youngish maple-trees at the foot of the garden. They whispered secrete to each other all the afternoon. They would bend together and talk earnestly for a few moments, then spring back and look at each other, throwing up their hands comically in horror and amazement over their mutual revelations. I wonder what new scandal is afoot in Treeland. (Emily’s Quest, p.151)

I, too, have a room all my own with a window that opens; my bed nestles right next to it. It thrills my romantic girl-soul to sit or lie on my bed and read while the evening air drifts over me. Breezes come from the West, and my new window is one of only two Western windows in the entire house that open. Those evening breezes feel like a benediction.

A few months ago, my daughter and I switched rooms. It was mostly for her, so she’d have more space for her growing collection of musical instruments, and her growing group of friends. But it also meant that I could escape the marital bedroom and its painful reminders. I am not exaggerating when I say that my bed takes up between 1/3 and 1/2 of my new room: it is tiny. But I’ve got that Western window that opens. And south-facing light, so I can grow some plants. And a little porch off the closet that overlooks the back yard and is so cozy in the late afternoon and early evening, with just the right amount of dappled shade.

the view from my porch of the backyard and the forsythia in bright bloom
In a couple of weeks, the lilacs that span the back yard will be in full bloom. After all this L.M. Montgomery I’ve been re-reading, I may have to give them a name–both Anne and Emily give romantic names to groupings of trees.

For Anne and Emily, these are their very first own-rooms, the first places they’d ever had where they could go to be alone and exercise their imaginations and express the full range of their emotions however they wanted without commentary or disdain. Although I’ve had several own-rooms, this is the first in 25 years, and it’s helping me feel like I’m both coming back to who I was and forging forward into who I truly am.

Of course, it isn’t perfect. The carpet is old and dotted in my daughter’s make-up and nail polish stains; the walls need to be painted; and to address either of those would mean taking everything out of the room when I’d only just moved everything in a couple of months ago.

But there’s scope for imagination. Which in Anne’s eyes, and mine, makes it a very great place, indeed.

*****

What do you love about a space you’ve carved out for yourself?
Where do you like to read?
Are you doing anything that thrills your child-soul?

*****

You may also like:

Diaries: Should They Stay or Should They Go? I’m going to sift through them here, with an audience. Let’s start with my earliest entries, age 9:

10/1/1977: That afternoon there was a bazzar to raise money for my school. There were cartoons pie’s cookie’s & juice. I bought a couple of plants. That night after supper my father gave me my punishment. It was to stay in my room after our talk. I think now it was a good one, because while I was reading Higher Than the Arrow, when Francie thought about her bad feelings, I thought about mine. Showery all day miserable and dull.

The Sanity BagOne memory per country 
The Dominican Republic
Sanity, sweet sanity We went to a resort during Christmas of my freshman year of college. Nothing can beat the Sanity Bag I found in a dresser drawer. As the mother of teenagers, I might need it now more than ever.

Let the children lead

seven nails are hammered in a meandering line along a board

The nails in this board have been hammered in by the 3rd – 5th graders of my church during their children’s worship time — the worship group that, even though I have other leaders lined up, I’m having to force myself to make the schedule, because I love being with them so much.

Before this past January, my church was like a lot of others: we ended the children’s worship program at 2nd grade. I’d been wanting to expand it for a couple of years, partially because many kids that age don’t want to be in the big service and I was the one who’d see their crestfallen faces at being told they have to go back downstairs. Partially because kids that age are not necessarily developmentally ready to listen and take in a sermon; I say “not necessarily” because I was one of those kids who listened to sermons from a ridiculously young age, but I know that makes me unusual. And partially because of a unique demographic we started seeing more of: kids coming with their grandparents.

A number of these kids don’t attend church with their parents, and might not have any Christian practices in their home, so Sunday morning with their grandparent is the only time we have them. I felt like I was failing them by not offering them faith formation aimed at their developmental level. For a few years, we only had one or two of these kids at a time, which makes it difficult to have a program for them. But we’ve grown, and now there are over a dozen regularly-attending kids between 3rd and 5th grade. And then I got hired as Children’s Ministries Coordinator, and things that were overwhelming to me as a volunteer, became possible. #HolySpiritTiming

So in January we started the group even though we didn’t have a program. I lead every Sunday and searched for a curriculum. I found one, but it was too extensive to put into effect quickly, so I found an interim that I love so much that I’m going to combine it with the other curriculum in the fall.

I won’t give it up because the kids lead almost the whole thing.

We use a book on family worship, Teach Us To Pray, by Lora A. Copley and Elizabeth Vander Haagen. It has a Scripture-based liturgy for every day of the year, but we mostly use the Sunday ones. The liturgy is broken down into 7 or 8 moments, most of which the kids lead. When we first sit down together, we decide who’s going to do what, and then we go through it.

The first thing is a physical act that brings us into a worship mindset and is a representation of something about the liturgical season.This is an important moment, not only because they are good reminders, but also because it gives kids who aren’t as confident reading aloud a way to lead.

Before Lent, one child lit a candle and led us on a stroll around the room to remind us that Christ is the light and we are to follow him. And some of those kids led us around and around and around until Miss Natalie had to whisper, “I’m getting dizzy. Are we going to sit down soon?” During Lent, one (or sometimes more) kid hammered a nail into a piece of wood to remind us that Jesus died for our sins.

I’ll be honest, the first session was a nightmare of questions and interruptions and interjections and we didn’t even make it past the Bible reading. And I usually had to whack the nail one more time so it wouldn’t be wobbly enough to tempt twitchy little fingers. And we wind up on some crazy tangents during the discussion portion. But when I recently ended the prayer without transitioning to the kid-led portion, they let me know, and I corrected my error. There’s something very right about this program if kids are objecting when we don’t go through the whole thing properly. It makes me glad.

It also makes me sneaky. You see, we’re also training kids to be involved in leading worship from a young age, so that when the time comes to lead the wider church, they’ll already have practice. Which is good, because the worship committee wants to have 5th Sundays as youth emphasis services, and I think those work better when there’s regular leadership development.

This past Sunday, I got to see all that in action in a minor way. I wound up being double-scheduled with my preschool and 3rd-5th grade worship rooms; there weren’t a lot of kids on that last Sunday of Spring Break, so I combined them. The two older kids hammered the nails into the board and did a reading in the middle of my felt board story, and it felt really good. I got to watch the little kids looking up to the big kids, and I got to watch the big kids showing the little ones how it’s done.

And it was well with my soul.

 

 

 

Forgiveness is unnatural. I did it anyway.

a toddler boy is yelling and has his hands over his ears

Someone wrongs you, hurts you, not just once but over the course of many years, causing you serious pain and trauma, and you’re supposed to forgive them?

God says, yes.

Because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love Jesus or when I didn’t want to follow him, that idea didn’t feel strange or unnatural until I recently tried to explain it to a 4th grade boy. He looked at me like the whole idea of forgiveness was flat out nuts and I was crazy for suggesting it.

I didn’t manage to convince him (although I hope I planted a seed), but his flat-out rejection of the idea of forgiveness helped me. Focussing on it as a strange, crazy, un-intuitive act made sense of the struggle I was having with forgiving my ex-husband.

For many months after the implosion of our marriage, I didn’t even want to want to forgive him, so my prayer was, “Lord, you’re going to have to do the work to make me want to want to forgive him, because I’m fighting it.” The Lord was silent on that particular issue, but He began bombarding me with the message:

You are my beloved. And my desire is for you.

I’ve written before about the grief and the glory of that message, and how much I needed it (Beloved). It carried me through many waves of sadness and anger, and even brought me to want to forgive my ex–but no farther.

This winter, I was swamped by grief that I wasn’t a married person. I’d worked so hard for so long to remain so; it was a big part of my identity. I was proud of being married for over 20 years. And now I wasn’t. This wasn’t about my ex, because I most certainly didn’t want to be married to him, but about me and adjusting to my new reality.

And I got angry at him all over again. I liked my anger. It was satisfying to rehearse the wrongs, to re-argue my point of view, to tend to the nugget of ill-will in a corner of my heart, to write diatribes in my mind that I knew I’d never publish but that I relished. I didn’t want to forgive if it meant I’d have to give up my right to be angry about the wrongs done to me.

But the issue of forgiveness wouldn’t go away–in part because of two pastors and my counselor, who kept asking about it. In part because I want to be a faithful child of God, and that means:

If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive. (Luke 17:3-4)

If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14-15)

 Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:31-21)

No matter how right my anger felt, I couldn’t escape the clear call of God for me to forgive the one who’d caused me serious pain and trauma. My prayers on this matter were brief requests for God to bring me to the point where I could do it.

He was getting me closer when my minister preached a great sermon on forgiveness that was also about anger. He unpacked Ephesians 4:26a: “don’t sin by letting anger control you” (NLT), “Be angry but do not sin” (NRSV), and “In your anger do not sin” (NIV). He pointed out that the anger is not the sin, that there is a difference between being angry and sinning–that sometimes anger is the right response.

Sometimes anger is the right response.

But I would be sinning if I let that anger control me and turn my heart towards bitterness, which I was.

My minister put it this way,

“Bitterness is a sin because it’s a failure to forgive as God, in Christ, forgave you. An unforgiving heart is an unforgiven heart. And if you can’t forgive it’s because you haven’t sensed His forgiveness of you.”

That worked through the final knot of resistance.

I am beloved. I am forgiven. I mustn’t let my anger control me.

So I forgave my ex.

Even so, I didn’t rush into it. I’ve lived with my forgiveness of him for a week, and, as with so much, writing it through helped cement it.

In case this makes me sound like I was thinking all these things through like reasonable person, you should know that I was not. I was like a toddler throwing a temper tantrum, digging my heels in, going slack like a noodle, putting my hands over my ears and screaming. The ability to forgive my ex is a gift from God, and one that I am immeasurably grateful for.

So if you have a nugget of ill will and bitterness against someone who’s wronged you, I shouldn’t recommend acting like a toddler, but I will anyway. Toddlers rail and kick and scream against the thing their parent wants them to do that they don’t want to–and then run to that same parent for comfort at the state the tantrum has put them in. So kick and scream and run to your heavenly Father. He’ll know what you need and give it to you (even if it comes  very slooooowly).

Writing, writing everywhere

a fountain pen sits atop an open notebook

Except here 🙂

But I will not moan about it, and I will not give you lengthy justifications and explanations. I will, however, share some of the writing I’ve done recently, everywhere but here.

Other ministries

I love talking with pastors about the work they’re doing, about the passions that drive their ministry choices–which is good, because that’s a big part of the writing I do for Gatherings of Hope, a non-profit aimed at helping pastors and congregations in Grand Rapids. It’s extra good because I recently got paid to talk with a friend who had pastored me well for 9 years.

The Gift of The Ask: Deepening Ministry by Growing Connections is my profile of Pastor Denise Evans, and her work with the Kingdom Life Ministries Community Development Corporation, in particular, about her work as the community liaison for The Deborah Project and The Deborah House. She’s the connector who finds organizations and people who want to help her church provide temporary housing and services to young single mothers and their kids. It was such a thrill to talk with her about her important and necessary work.

And to talk with one of her conspirators, Pastor Doriane Parker-Sims, the visionary behind those projects. She is doing deeply good work in Grand Rapids, and I was so glad she took the time to talk with me about it. When the Needs Are Deep, the Vision Gets Deeper: How one Grand Rapids church went from giving away backpacks to providing housing.

Favorite analogy

This isn’t terribly recent, but it’s a piece of writing I love: Leading From the Middle: Pastor as Shepherd. I got to take the research I did about shepherding for The Giant Slayer and apply it to the image of the pastor as shepherd. I highlighted how the image of the sheep streaming after the shepherd and respectfully following him in a neat line was lovely and romantic … but doesn’t reflect the ministry reality. Rather, shepherds lead from the middle, they do intimate, one-on-one work that gets messy, but they also provide direction and take the long view. I even like my ending, mostly because I’d been trying to write an article that the quote from Khary would work in for close to a year.

So why would anyone take this on? Especially for the bi-vocational pastors who do this all-consuming work during their non-paid-work hours.

Of course, as pastors, you are called and equipped to this work by God, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. But Khary Bridgewater, Senior Program Officer for Gatherings of Hope, points out that something else is true of you:

“Let’s start with you not being normal because you like sheep and most people think sheep stink.”

You love those sheep.

That doesn’t make the job any easier or less messy, but it does help explain how you can not only keep going, but even long to be with those messy, wandering creatures. You’re not normal — and we thank God for that.

My Writer Unboxed debut

I’ve been reading Writer Unboxed in a daily basis for close to ten years. I’ve been part of their Facebook group from the beginning, I’ve gone to their two Unconferences, and I’m a moderator of the WU Breakout Novelist Book Dissection group. I admire all the writing gurus, published and unpublished, who I read there. And last week, I got to join them–not as a writing guru, but as a reporter for the novel dissection group. I got to write about a book I loved, and about a discussion I loved being part of, for a site that is a crucial part of my life as a writer. It was a big deal. Dissecting A Man Called Ove:

Don’t worry, no men called Ove will be harmed and no physical guts revealed in this post, but we will expose some of the techniques Frederik Backman used to craft his breakout novel, A Man Called Ove:
* he told a compelling “domestic” story without An Antagonist
* he made omniscient point of view feel as intimate as first person.
* he masterfully wove past and present.

Getting political without getting nasty

I’m doing something new: writing about politics. I’ve normally steered clear of that, but I am concerned about my adopted country of the U.S. of A. So I’ve joined a group blog called Letters to Trump. Once a month, I’ll write a letter directly to our current President. Here are two attempts at getting political without getting nasty:

Day 3

Dear Mr. President,

I am worried about you. Not for your personal safety—the Secret Service will protect your body. I am worried about you. As a person.

You seem obsessed, not with doing the best, but with being seen as The Best Ever. Those are very different things.

Needing others to laud you as The Best Ever gives them the power to determine your worth and value as a person, which is a very insecure position to be in. Even though millions of people think you are great, it’ll never be enough—your need is a swirling beast that will never be satisfied.

Day 170 – You Are Isolating Us to Feed Your Ego, Mr. President.

… Yes, there is probably satisfaction that you get from standing alone, the Big Man, facing down those smaller than you. But it makes me sad for you. You see, some of the best things I’ve done have come during times of collaboration, and I’m sad that you will miss out on the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to do something far bigger than you could accomplish on your own.

I was recently part of a collaboration of 8 churches–three were majority white, five were majority African-American, from 4 different denominations–to put on a Vacation Bible School (VBS). Together. Each church had done summer programs for kids, but we came together to do something bigger, something new to each of us, something that could show our community that the people of God could work together for the benefit of our neighborhood. Did we start out with more churches and did some leave us as we went through the planning process? Yes. Did we have the occasional 45-minute discussion about something only to discover we’d been saying the same thing but with slightly different vocabulary? Yes. Did the VBS we chose look like anything our churches had done before? No, and this produced some early tension.

But we learned to trust each other and rely on each other, and it was glorious.

Obnoxious?

Hopefully this link-y post all about me wasn’t too obnoxious. It’s been more challenging than I’d thought to combine fiction writing, paid freelance writing and editing, two paid mini-jobs, and keeping up with my blog. But I’m working it out.

And I hope you keep working out what you need to work out, and that you don’t give up on things you enjoy doing, even if how you do it winds up changing. We’re in this together!

Sometimes you have to toss the curriculum

a little boy is stretched out on his stomach, reading a big Bible

This past Sunday was one of those days. Instead of talking about the Apostle Paul, I taught my Sunday school class (4-year-olds through 5th-graders) about lament and then we wrote our own.

Here’s what I said:

Normally in Children’s Worship and Sunday school we tell stories about great things God has done and great things people have done because they had faith in God, but there are other parts of the Bible. In some parts of the Bible people are really angry, and really sad, and they’re even angry and sad at God. And they wrote about it. There are a bunch of what we call Psalms of Lament, where people tell all their strong feelings to God.

Now, I may have made a tactical error in the psalms I read. The kids (6 boys, 1 girl) were a little too enamored with Psalm 3:7:

Arise, O Lord!
Rescue me, my God!
Slap all my enemies in the face!
Shatter the teeth of the wicked!

Not to mention Psalm 58:

Justice–do you rulers know the meaning of the word?
Do you judge the people fairly?
No, all your dealings are crooked;
you hand out violence instead of justice…
They spit poison like deadly snakes;
they are like cobras that refuse to listen…
Break off their fangs, O God!
Smash the jaws of these lions, O Lord!

I apologize to any parents who were wondering where their kids got those images from. I did attempt to point out that the writers were asking God to do these things, not giving them license to, but one never knows how much that sinks in compared to the high drama of slapping faces and breaking off fangs.

After I read a few Psalms, I unrolled a big piece of paper and told them that we’d write our own Psalm of Lament about what was going on in their lives. There is a general structure among many laments:

This is what’s going on in the world and in my life
It makes me feel
AND YET, I know this is true about you, God
BECAUSE OF THAT, I will
O God, please

We followed that structure, and amid silliness and kid squirminess, they were vulnerable and wise and dear, even those who sat quietly, watching with wide eyes. When they were answering what they would do, they got on a roll talking about what they’d eat (strawberries and sandwiches featured heavily), so I interpreted that as taking care of themselves–since we often forget to do that when we’re mad and sad. And the teacher in me couldn’t stop from contributing the last line.

Here’s what was on these kids’ minds and hearts this weekend:

PSALM OF LAMENT

This is what’s going on in the world and in my life
Donald Trump became President
Somebody got in a car accident
Cancer
My friends get me in trouble
Diseases–they are strong
Blustery winds that made trees fall down
Hurricanes
Ungrateful people

It makes me feel
mad
sad
angry
angry at people
sick
scared
like moving to Canada
not happy

AND YET, I know this is true
God be helpful
God is caring
God loves other people
God carries you
God can help people become better people
God helps people get through hard things
God has helped me learn
God has a son named Jesus

BECAUSE OF THAT, I will
Help stop cancer
Help people get through what they’re going through even though I’m going through something bad, too
Keep taking care of myself
Get out and vote
Tell my friends to stop busting me for no reason

O God, please
help stop hurricanes
convince people to go out and vote
help us to love each other better

From troubles with friends to health issues to natural disasters to troubles in our country, kids have a lot going on. It was a privilege to help them put it into words and express it to God and to each other.

All in

The books are ALL IN!!

It feels like it’s taken forever,

gif of Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy saying finally

but the books are finally here, piled up in my dining room and in Amanda’s living room.

books and greeting cards propped on the pile of boxes in my dining room

The hardcovers came in yesterday (finally!), so now we’ve got all the books. I am totally biased, but they are gorgeous. The paper is nice and thick, the covers so nice and soft that I keep wanting to pet them, the colors so vibrant. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you can order them here, on sale for $12 and $17 for the release month.)

“But wait,” you may be saying, “what are those things that look like greeting cards?”

Well, they’re greeting cards 🙂 If you’re in the Zeeland, Michigan area this Saturday, May 21, come and see me and Amanda at the Peddler’s Market, where we’ll be selling the books as well as some cards. We’ll be putting the cards for sale on westolivepress.com after the weekend ($4 each) — three birthday cards, one Father’s Day card (the one of the dad making silly T Rex arms), and three cards with general statements that could be used for birthdays, Happy Adoption Days, and any day “You are so loved” and “We’re in this together” would be appropriate.

There are what seems like a thousand things to do: get the Kickstarter hardcovers signed by all three of us, send them to our contributors, send the orders that are coming in through the website, make price tags for the Peddler’s Market, get us set up on Fulfillment by Amazon so the books will be for sale there (soon!), get set up on Goodreads, get onto the SEO wagon for the website, make sure my Square reader works, put the cards on the website….

The list also includes fun things. I got to upgrade my membership in the Alliance of Independent Authors from Associate to Author (see the shiny new badge in the sidebar).

And we got our first feedback from a reader:

 

As Real As It Gets is getting very real!

My new best friend is command + shift + 4. Because that’s how you take a screen shot on a Mac while choosing exactly what image you want to steal … um, I mean share.

Back in October, I posted a lot about a Kickstarter project for a picture book about a boy who can’t help yelling, “You’re not my real mother!” We made the goal (hooray!) and the always-brilliant Joel Schoon-Tanis has finished the illustrations, so now the project is on to the photographer and the book designer. It’s getting closer!

As a writer, it’s unusual for me to be at a loss for words, but that’s where I’m at every time I look at these illustrations. My co-author, Amanda Barton, and I pounded out the story and shaped my words, and now here they are, given bodies. It’s moving.

So as a treat for us all, here are a few of the illustrations I screen-shotted from Joel’s Instagram feed. To see more of them, as well as other great paintings and images, follow him: https://www.instagram.com/joel.schoon.tanis.art/

If you weren’t part of the Kickstarter and you’d like to find out when the book is available, head over to West Olive Press and sign up.

Enjoy!

It's like a T Rex taking over my body, jaws opening wide for a prehistoric roar.
Some kid on the playground was going on about the monster under his bed. Hah.
I know where a real monster lives.
In my belly.
It’s like a T Rex taking over my body, jaws opening wide for a prehistoric roar.

 

Like a gas bubble, stretching me until I’m a balloon about to pop.
Like a gas bubble, stretching me until I’m a balloon about to pop.

 

The monster always thinks this will be the time it shocks my mother...
The monster always thinks this will be the time it shocks my mother…

 

She plops down with me. “Forever means always. Longer than you can imagine. Longer than even I can imagine.” My “okay” is kind of wobbly...
She plops down with me. “Forever means always. Longer than you can imagine. Longer than even I can imagine.”
My “okay” is kind of wobbly…

Clarity Hangover

There are few times in life when what you should do is utterly clear. About nine years ago, I left my kids and husband in the States for four days, and went to Canada to take care of my cousin, Esther, who was dying of metastatic colon cancer. I was providing weekend relief for her father, my uncle, who’d been providing 24-hour care for months.

My main tasks were to “burp” her colostomy bag throughout the day and night so it wouldn’t explode from gas build-up, give her all her medicines at the right times, try to get her to eat and drink, and help her go to the bathroom. The colostomy bag job was smelly. She didn’t really want to eat or drink, and she’d always hated taking pills, especially giant doozies like these, so it took a long a time for any ingestion to happen. Even with all the meds, she was often in pain to the point of it seeming cruel that pain alone couldn’t kill a person. It turned out that I was the last person to get her all the way out of bed, the last person to help her use the potty.

The job was messy, and smelly, and sad, and my sleep was constantly interrupted.

Those were four of the best days of my life.

They weren’t the best days in spite of all the mess and stink and grief, but because of them. My job was so clear: all I had to do was take care of her. Her needs were clear. I’m still proud that she told me I could be a nurse, I was taking such good care of her.

We had lovely moments: laying on her bed together during her lucid times, going through her jewelry box, sorting through mementos, telling stories about our childhoods and our Oma, sampling the nice-smelling lotions people gave her. Choosing what she gave me.

E's gifts to N

She asked me at least once a day whether we were square, or whether anything needed saying between us. We were good. She was good.

All she wanted to do was see her daughter, her lively, beloved, long-awaited little girl, who was three. I have a memory of the little one jumping on the bed, and it hurt Esther, but her daughter was giggling and happy, so she withstood the pain for awhile. Her daughter still has an irresistible laugh — in fact, her out-of-control, crazy laugh is just like her mother’s.

***

This post was going to start with Esther and then move to how rare clarity is, and how I’ve had it the last four months — terrible clarity fueled by anger. And about how the shell of my anger is cracking, and how it’s easier and more satisfying to be angry than to live in my hurt.

But I know how to live with grief and hurt. Next week would have been Esther’s 48th birthday; she was 39 when she died. We were born only one month and eight days apart. Our Opa was our minister, and he wouldn’t baptize me until he could do both of us, so by the time it happened, I was too fat for the lovely baptism dress my mother had sewed for me.

N's baptism dress

We were friends from the start — not always uncomplicated friends. My parents still talk about watching her shove some of her mother’s forbidden china into my hands to throw me under the bus when her mom saw her with the tea cup. Her mother gave her thick hair beautiful ringlet curls when I barely had enough hair to comb.

N and E toddlers

In fifth grade, when I came back from three years in Australia and started at our tiny alternative Christian school, she was often the ringleader of my social exclusion, telling me once, “I’m so glad you finally started wearing pants. We’d decided to tell you not to come to school until you did.”

But we also ran around the beautiful Mt. Pleasant cemetery, making up spy clubs and freaking ourselves out. We took photos of each other taking photos of the other.

N taking photo of EN taking photo of E 2

We made chocolate frosting and ate the whole batch. We tried making 7-Up pancakes, but they didn’t cook in the middle, and scrambling them made the whole thing worse — it was over 20 years before I attempted pancakes again. We went on crazy diets at the cottage and then broke them with feasts of saltines and liverwurst. The first time I got drunk was with her. We lived together for a year in college, when she’d walk around the house singing snippets of “Walking After Midnight” and “Crazy” all the time. All. The. Time. We closed the curtains and had an impromptu dance party one night, grooving to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” She loved to visit me when I lived in New York.

N and E at Sonali

She always sent me the photos she took on visits.

N and E at K's wedding

She gave wonderful baby gifts.

W in E's gift H in E's gift

When I’d visit Toronto, she’d make sure there was a party so I could see everyone.

Damn cancer.

***

If I think back to that time, as well as reflect on the time I’m in right now, I think I’ve got a bit of a clarity hangover. That kind of clarity is intense and wonderful, but also terrible and unsustainable. Afterwards, we’ve got to learn how to live with it. So that’s what I’m doing.

***

If any of you have made it this far (thank you!), I invite you to share your own stories of times of clarity, your own stories of Esther, your own stories of people cancer has stolen from you. We’re all in this together.